Bible Q&A – Did Paul Receive the Holy Spirit by the Laying on of Hands?

Question: Ananias was sent to Damascus in Acts 9 to lay hands on Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul).  One of the reasons he came was so that Saul could “receive the Holy Spirit.”  So, did Saul receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands?–L.F.

There are several opinions from scholars as to what this means. Some insist that it is the literal indwelling of the Holy Spirit being given to Saul of Tarsus—prior to baptism—by Ananias laying hands on him. Others say basically the same thing, except they say it was the gift of miracles being given to Saul prior to his baptism by Ananias laying hands on him.

When Luke uses the phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” or “full of the Holy Spirit,” miracles (usually inspiration) are always under consideration. Examine them for yourself: John the Immerser (Luke 1:15), John’s mother, Elisabeth (Luke 1:41-45), John’s father, Zacharias (Luke 1:67-79), the apostles (Acts 2:4), the apostles again (Acts 4:31), Stephen (Acts 6:5, 7:55-56), Barnabas (Acts 11:22-24), Paul (Acts 13:9-11), and the Iconium disciples (Acts 13:52-14:1).

Understanding this, let’s now look at the evidence to come to a rational, biblical conclusion to this potential conundrum.

First, Jesus said that the purpose of Ananias’ laying hands on Saul was so he would receive his sight. That was seen in verse 12 of this same chapter (Acts 9). There was no indication in Jesus’ words that Ananias was going to give Saul the Holy Spirit.

Second, the only result of this event shown in the Bible is that Saul received his sight. After he put his hands on Saul, the Bible only records that Saul received his sight. It says nothing about him receiving the Holy Spirit. If we look at Acts 22, where Saul (who is also called Paul) is telling about this very event, we see that he doesn’t even mention the Holy Spirit at all—but he does mention receiving his sight again (Acts 22:12-13).

Third, the ability to pass on the Holy Spirit was only available to the apostles. This is shown in chapter 8, verses 14-18. Ananias was not an apostle, and so—unless he is classed as an apostle—the evidence is against his being able to pass on this gift.

Fourth, Saul was lost in his sins when Ananias laid his hands on him, and was not a candidate to receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not been baptized. This principle is seen in Acts 8:15-16. Acts 22:12-16 shows that he was still lost in sins after Ananias laid his hands on him. The Holy Spirit was promised only to those who were the obedient servants of God (Acts 2:17-18, 5:32).[1]

Fifth, Paul makes it very clear throughout his life that he did not receive his apostleship from any man. Miracles (the gift of the Holy Spirit) and the ability to pass them on were “the signs of an apostle” (II Corinthians 12:12). Paul states that he was “an apostle—not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). All of the apostles received their miraculous ability direct from heaven (Acts 2:1-4, 4:29-31). Paul would be no different.

Sixth, we see no record of Saul performing miracles until years later. The first time we read of Saul (now called Paul) doing any miracle is in Acts 13:9-11. This is the first time where Paul is said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Now, this does not mean that Paul was unable to perform miracles prior to Acts 13, but it is supportive evidence that he did not receive the Holy Spirit when Ananias laid hands on him. There is no evidence that Saul was able to work miracles before that event.

Seventh, it took the testimony of Barnabas to convince the apostles that Saul was really a disciple of Jesus Christ. You might ask What does that have to do with anything? If Saul of Tarsus had the miraculous abilities given by the Holy Spirit at this point, it would have been very simple for him to prove to the apostles and other disciples that he was a Christian. But instead, it took Barnabas speaking on his behalf. Though not conclusive, this evidence seems to indicate that at this point Saul did not have the miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit.

Since the evidence implies that Saul did not receive the Holy Spirit when Ananias laid hands on him, what exactly did he mean when he told Saul “Jesus…has sent me so that you might…be filled with the Holy Spirit”?

Ananias’ mission was to heal and baptize Saul—to bring him into the family of God and Christ. As we’ve seen from other passages in Acts (2:17-18, 5:32), the Holy Spirit was only given to those who were servants of God, and who obey Him. Ananias came to help Saul become spiritually acceptable before God, and thus also help him become a candidate for the reception of the Holy Spirit. It was preparatory work.

[1] The example of Cornelius, who was a faithful servant of God under the Patriarchal Law, will be dealt with in the notes on chapters ten and eleven.

[NOTE: the answer given above is taken from our upcoming book, The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts]

-Bradley S. Cobb

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2 thoughts on “Bible Q&A – Did Paul Receive the Holy Spirit by the Laying on of Hands?”

  1. Bradley I appreciate you writing this article, and I love that you are attempting to pull in the whole testimony of Scripture as you teach this! But you missed something and it is simply not true. The evidence doesn’t “imply” the exact opposite of what the scripture says. When Ananias said that the LORD had sent him so that Paul could receive his sight AND be filled with the Spirit – he meant that Paul would receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.

    Think back 1 chapter in Acts chapter 8 and we see a group of people who not only “believed” the gospel that Philip preached, but they also identified fully with Jesus through baptism (vs.12) … and “yet” the Holy Spirit had fallen on none of them (vs.16). So Peter and John came down from Jerusalem to “lay hands” (vs.17) on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.

    Whenever someone equates this with “salvation” they are setting themselves up to ignore what the Scriptures teach. (Kind of like those who will deny the Trinity because “that word” is not found in the Bible – even though it is clearly represented).
    We know that repentance/faith are all that is needed for a person to be born again … these Samaritans were believers that hadn’t received the outpouring of GOD’s Spirit yet and needed Peter and John to lay hands on them to receive it, for GOD’s own reasons.

    (I have no idea why not through Philip as he was casting out demons and healing the paralyzed and lame (Acts 8:7) … maybe it was to open the apostles hearts to the Samaritans … but only GOD “knows” why).

    I am aware of the arguments that seek to undo this, but remember that the apostles along with more than 100 others were all filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 (vs.4). If we take this to mean that they were “indwelt” by the Spirit at this time once and for all, then what happens when we realize that these “same disciples” were filled “again” in Acts 4:31? Certainly the Holy Spirit did not come to live in them again??? Of course not, this was something else. We miss what GOD is showing us through the testimony of Scripture if we don’t see that they experienced this at least twice (although I would argue that it was many times). How could they be “filled with the Spirit” on 2 separate occasions? This is why Paul asked the disciples from Ephesus if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed (Acts 19:2), because their were genuine believers loved by GOD, having the inner witness of the Spirit, but that HAD NOT YET received this outpouring from above. (Like the believers in Samaria in Acts 8).

    But it doesn’t have to come through the laying on of hands even though it did through Peter and John (Acts 8), through Ananias (Acts 9), and later through Paul (Acts 19). We see it happening while waiting in prayer (Acts 2 & 4), while listening to the Word preached (Acts 10), and through the laying on of hands (Acts 9 & 19). In “every” instance it is something experienced, not assumed.

    I kindly challenge you to reconsider your understanding of these Scriptures so that you do not lead someone away from receiving the promise that GOD has given to everyone who comes to Him. And GOD bless you my friend as you continue to search the Scriptures! I look forward to a kindhearted rebuff on my blogs as well (assuming I ever start writing them).

    1. I realize that it has been several months since you posted this comment, so I apologize for not replying to it sooner.

      You and I agree more than you may think on some of the items you mention above. Acts 2 doesn’t describe the indwelling of the Spirit, but the outpouring of the Spirit, prophesied by Joel, which would result in miracles taking place. I’ve written elsewhere on the prophecy of Joel, and the time markers that are inherent in the context of Joel, and how they would be understood in light of the time/place/audience when Peter applied them to Pentecost.

      Paul was very clear to state repeatedly that he did not receive his apostleship from any man. But if he was only able to do “the signs of an apostle” because Ananias laid hands on him, then Paul was mistaken at best, and lying at worst.

      “Receiving the Holy Spirit,” in the book of Acts, is not a synonym for “receiving salvation.” So we are in complete agreement there. The “filling” of Acts 4 (and other places in Luke’s writings) always had reference to something miraculous taking place, as they were always followed immediately by Spirit-inspired speech.

      You said:

      I am aware of the arguments that seek to undo this, but remember that the apostles along with more than 100 others were all filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 (vs.4).

      In Greek, as well as English, pronouns (such as “they”) refer to the nearest antecedent (the nearest noun that it could refer to), unless there is clear contextual evidence to apply it to a different antecedent. The nearest antecedent to “they” (as in “they were filled with the Holy Spirit”, Acts 2:4) is “the apostles” (Acts 1:26, and the apostles are the exclusive topic of discussion all the way back to verse 17), not the 120 disciples (which were mentioned in verse 15). There is no clear contextual evidence to apply it to the 120.

      I will push back on your following statement, as well:

      We know that repentance/faith are all that is needed for a person to be born again

      I assume you would agree that we must take the totality of what the Bible teaches on a subject, and not just cherry-pick verses we like to create our doctrine, correct? That being the case, we must recognize that repentance/faith is not all that God’s word says are needed for someone to be saved or “born again.” For example, “by grace are you saved,” “baptism does also now save us,” “if we confess with the mouth…we shall be saved,” “godly sorrow brings about repentance,” “arise and be baptized, wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

      We cannot choose the passages we like, that agree with our preconceived theology, and ignore or minimize the others. Faith cannot save apart from repentance. Repentance cannot save apart from godly sorrow. Neither of those can save apart from God’s grace. And regardless of what anyone outside of Scripture says, faith and repentance are not effective without obeying the command to be baptized, which is where one is “born again.” (note: baptism apart from faith, repentance, godly sorrow, grace, etc. is also of no effect. They must all be present.)

      Consider that Romans 6:1-4 shows us that when one arises from baptism, he rises “to walk in newness of life.” A new life. Born again. They are the same thing, which is why Jesus said one had to be born of “water and spirit.”

      Thank you again for your comments.

      If you’re interested, I would be happy to send you a free digital copy of my book, “The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts,” which goes into much more detail.

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